The Old Girl's New Tricks, Part III

Things start getting tenser… but we're still not even halfway through the story. < ![CDATA[

Chapter 11

Blythe burst on to the bridge, Foster
at his heels. “Report, Mr. Rose!”

Rose spun around. “Sir, one
of the merchies reported a periscope off the starboard bow. As per
your standing orders, the destroyers are rushing to attack, the
Manchester‘s
leading the merchies to the south, and we’re continuing on our
present course, but increasing speed to 15 knots.”

Blythe had worked it out well in
advance. The
Manchester
was useless against subs, so she would lead the merchants away from
the sighting — ready to confront any other raiders that might use
the sub attack as a diversion. The destroyers would go after the sub,
hoping to sink it — or, at least, drive it off or keep it down long
enough for the merchants to escape. And the
Arkansas
herself would present herself as a very tempting target for the subs,
as a Japanese sub driver who passed up a battleship for a civilian
ship would almost guarantee himself a mutiny.

“Excellent. I have the conn.”
Blythe took his seat, and Rose — relieved in several senses of the
word — stepped off to the side. Blythe then closed his eyes. Years
ago, he’d discovered that he could construct a far more accurate
plotting board in his mind than his crew could keep. Sometimes, when
some war games had gotten most intense, he’d even blindfolded himself
to keep his own chart intact. That had troubled some of his staff,
but they learned that the less he saw with his eyes, the keener his
vision was.

“Mr. Rose, double the
lookouts on the port side, have them all look for periscopes or
torpedo tracks. Engine room, give me turns for 18 knots — I want to
keep just a little in reserve. Helm, come port ten degrees — I want
to give them just a little more of a target. Report when all
starboard secondary mounts are ready. Any word from the
Manchester?”

“Yes, sir. All clear to the south.”

“At
least we got that going for us. Now, the destroyers –
anything?”

“They report nothing as yet, but they’re
still looking.”

Long minutes passed. Blythe ordered a
slow starboard turn, sweeping the Arkansas
around back towards the scene of the sighting. The merchants poured
on the power, getting to their maximum speed — which the
Manchester
tried to not find too boring. And the destroyers churned big holes in
the ocean, looking for the elusive sub.

Finally, word came in. “Sir,
it’s the
Bates.
They report a pod of whales in the target area. Her captain thinks
the merchie spotted one of them breaching and spouting, and took that
for a sub.”

Blythe sighed. It was half a sigh of
frustration, half of relief. “Well, at least it was a good
exercise. Secure from general quarters, and pass the word to the rest
of the ships. Resume prior speed and heading, and have the convoy
reform in the previous formation on us.” The crew visibly
relaxed, and began the long, tedious process of reforming their
convoy.

Just then, a seaman stepped on to the
bridge. Sweat beaded his brow. “Begging the captain’s pardon,
sir…”

Blythe turned to the man — hell, more boy than
man — and fixed him with a gaze that Blythe had spent years
developing. It was one that convinced its subject that Blythe was
staring right into his soul — and was mostly bored, but slightly
annoyed, at what he found. Blythe found it far more disorienting than
any signs of rage or even cold, almost reptilian menace. “Speak,
Seaman.” By neither stating or asking for the sailor’s name,
Blythe continued the facade of indifferent irritation.

“His Majesty… er…” he
pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and read it, almost hiding
behind it before the captain. “His Watery Majesty has ordered me
to inform you he intends to resume the ceremonies with the first
group of Dateline pollywogs, and would appreciate your best efforts
to avoid any more disruptions of these sacred rites.” Only then
did he look up, almost cringing in anticipation of Blythe’s response.

Blythe held the sailor’s gaze for a
very long moment, not letting a hint of emotion — or any other kind
of response — show. He didn’t even blink. (Another skill Blythe had
spent years developing. He went for any kind of an edge he could
find.) Then, after the sailor quailed and looked away, he
spoke.

“You may extend to his Watery Majesty our
sincerest apologies for any inconvenience we may have caused him and
his court, but we had to fulfill our obligation to keep him from the
far greater inconvenience and insult that would come from having our
ship sunk out from under him. We will redouble our efforts to keep
any further incidents from inconveniencing him and interrupting the
initiations, but we are, after all, only mortals.”

Color slowly creeped back into the
seaman’s face. Caught in a potential struggle between two authority
figures, he had resigned himself to being subjected to the wrath of
at least one — if not both. But it seems that he’d somehow sailed
safeway between Sea God Scylla and Captain Charydis unharmed.
Snapping off a hasty salute, he fled the bridge.

Blythe stood
stock still for a long moment, then finally spoke. “Gentlemen,
go ahead and indulge yourselves at Seaman Kelly’s expense — but
briefly.”

Laughter rocked the bridge — largely fueled by
the false alarm of the submarine scare, but still most sincere. They
knew their captain, and they knew there was a part of him that
genuinely enjoyed these chances to briefly torment the youngest of
the crew — before letting them off the hook.

“OK, that’s enough. Navigator,
how long until we reach Noumea?”

“I’d say four days, sir —
presuming no major problems reassembling the convoy, and no more
incidents.”

“Excellent. Mr. Rose, you have the con
again. Mr. Foster, resume your previous station and duties. I’ll be
in my cabin.”

He started to leave, then paused. “Oh,
and pass the word to the ship, and the whole convoy. Tell them well
done — even if the threat wasn’t real, their response was most
satisfactory.”

As he left, he muttered to himself.
“At least this time, none of the merchants charged right at the
enemy…”

Chapter 12

“…and drop anchor.”
Captain Blythe finally relaxed; his ship was safe, in harbor, after a
rather tense trip through the South Pacific. “Give me all
hands.”

“Attention all hands, this is the captain.
Welcome to Noumea. As this isn’t a a regular base but a staging area
for a major campaign, I do not know about the possibilities of shore
leave. I will be going ashore to report to Admiral Halsey’s staff,
and that will be one of my first questions, but we’re well into a war
zone here, and we can’t forget it. In the meantime, there will be
plenty of work to do. All department heads report to the ward room in
20 minutes.”

Blythe put down the microphone. “I
figure the meeting shouldn’t take more than ten minutes, so have my
gig ready in half an hour.” With that, he headed for the ward
room to start working on his notes.

* * * * *

Blythe was just finishing his
assignments when his department heads started filing in. He waved
them to their seats while he finalized his notes. When the last
officer sat down, he looked up.

“Gentlemen, I meant what
I said. This is a war zone, we could be attacked at any time, and as
a battleship we will be a prime target — remember Pearl Harbor. I
want at least minimal combat readiness at all times — that means
securing all watertight doors unless absolutely necessary, lookouts
and anti-aircraft weapons manned, and at least two boilers online at
all times. And anything else you can think of that will keep us safe
— run any ideas you have past the exec.”

They all
nodded. Blythe continued. “And I have some specific instructions
for some of you. Engineering — check with the harbormaster and see
if we can top off our fuel tanks. We have enough to get back to
Pearl, but not with enough of a margin for me — and I think we all
have our doubts if we’re heading backwards — we haven’t so far, so
why start now?” There were a few wry chuckles. “Guns, call
the Diamond Huckster
alongside and top off our magazines. We fired off a few shells in
those training exercises, and this seems as good a time as any to get
aboard all the ammo we can.” Another nod. “Exec, get with
the quartermaster and see what we can use for food and other
supplies. Again, we’ve got a good-sized port facility here; might as
well make the most of it.” More nods. “Doc, same to you. I
want sick bay stuffed with anything you think we might even remotely
need. We’re closer now to the front lines than we have ever been, and
I don’t want to run out of anything if at all possible.”

Blythe then paused
and looked each officer in the eye, fixing them with his intensity —
he wanted there to be no misunderstandings about how seriously he
considered their situation. “Again, if you have any other ideas
you can do to make us as combat ready as possible, feel free to
indulge yourself — and if you are uncomfortable with that kind of
freedom, run it past the exec. Anything else?”

With the murmured
denials, Blythe then stood. “Then get back to your departments,
and spread the word — there will be no relaxing until further
notice. I’m going ashore now, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Chapter 13

Captain Blythe,
his cap tucked securely under his arm, strode into Admiral Halsey’s
offices — and stopped cold. He was expecting one of Halsey’s aides,
but the old man himself was standing there, a big grin splitting his
craggy face and arm outstretched. “Will! Good to see you again!”

It took only a
second for Blythe to get over his surprise. “Good to see you
again, sir. I wasn’t certain you’d remember me.”

Halsey
shook his hand rigorously, then gestured to a chair. “Forget one
of the most promising officers ever to serve under me? Especially one
with a name I gave to him myself? Never! Congratulations on your own
ship — a battleship, even one as much of an antique as the Arkansas,
is quite an achievement.”

Blythe recalled their service.
Upon their first introduction, Halsey had informed him that there was
only one Bill on his staff, and since it was Halsey’s staff, he was
keeping the nickname. Blythe would have his choice of “Will”
or “Billy Jeff” or “Little Bill.” He’d taken
“Will” as the least of the three evils. “Don’t
underestimate the Arky, sir. Yes, she’s old, and she’s slow, and she
doesn’t have the punch of newer battlewagons, and she’s not as well
armored as they are, but… ” he paused. “Where was I going
with that?”

Halsey laughed and
poured two drinks. “You can’t fool me, Will. You’re damned proud
of your ship and your crew — and well you ought to be. When I heard
you were coming here, I did a little reading up — and you and your
boys have done some damned fine work. Especially that little training
exercise on the way to Pearl — you made me damned proud to say you’d
once been one of my boys.”

Blythe was a touch embarrassed
at the effusive praise. “It just seemed like a good idea at the
time.”

“Damned right
it was. Anyway, welcome to Noumea. It ain’t much, but it’s what we
got — and we ain’t gonna let the Japs take it from us. I bet you’re
just brimming with questions, so let’s hear ’em.”

Blythe
found himself relaxing. He’d forgotten what it was like to deal with
Halsey — when he was in a good mood, and you hadn’t screwed
something up. “First up, sir, we’d all like to know what’s next
for us. We’ve come halfway around the world, one stop at a time, and
each time we stop we get shoved further along the way. Half my crew’s
betting we’ll go through the Suez into the Med, and the other half
has us going around Africa — but ending up back in England for more
convoy duty.”

“That’s a
fair question, and here’s your fair answer — I don’t know. I asked
Pearl to let me keep you here for at least a week or two, in case
something comes up, and they agreed. So you’re temporarily attached
to my command for that long. At this point, I don’t have any plans
for you, but I like having you in my back pocket.”

Blythe
considered that. From what he had heard about the Solomons campaign,
he couldn’t blame Halsey for wanting to keep any warship — even the
Arky — around for as long as he could. She might not be up for a
toe-to-toe fight in the Slot, but she could guard the port pretty
much better than anyone, and she could also guard the transports
running men and materiel up to Guadalcanal, and evacuating the
wounded. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it was certainly fair.

“Fine, sir.
Proud to be under your flag again. Next up, how are the rec
facilities here? I got a shipful of men itching for some South
Pacific fun and games.”

“Not too bad.
Run it past my staff, but I don’t think that putting your men ashore
one-quarter at a time will cause too many problems.”

Blythe considered
bringing up his orders to his department heads, but decided against
it. He’d told them to take care of it; any attempts to “grease
the skids” for them could be taken as a sign that they lacked
his confidence. If they had any problems, they’d take it to Foster or
bring it to Blythe directly. “That should do it, sir. Now, can I
ask you about the situation here?”

Halsey leaned back and
grimaced. “The situation, Will, in a word, stinks. We’re
throwing everything we have into taking and holding Guadalcanal, and
the Japs are fighting back with everything they have. Both sides have
lost so many ships in there that some people are calling the area
between Guadalcanal and Savo Island ‘Iron Bottom Sound.’ We even lost
two Admirals just last night — Callaghan and Scott. Fine men.”
He sighed.

Blythe
was stunned. He’d known it was bad, but he hadn’t known how bad. The
thought of two admirals dying in a single battle was virtually
unthinkable. (Pearl Harbor didn’t count.) “Sir, if there’s
anything the
Arkansas
can do…”

Halsey waved him off. “No offense, son,
but no. Tonight I’m sending in the Washington
and
the
South Dakota.
And if they get worked over like last night’s force, you might be
taking me back to Pearl. And to be perfectly blunt, son, you’d only
slow them down and put them at greater risk.”

Blythe
found himself biting back a rebuttal, but had to admit to himself
that Halsey was right. From what he’d heard, the new fast battleships
could get close to 30 knots, while the Arky had to struggle to hit
19. “…Understood, sir.”

“But I still
think you can do some good down here. That’s why I’m keeping you
around, instead of sending you back to Pearl… or,” he winked,
“sending you on to Australia. It’s just a matter of finding out
where you can do the most good.”

“Thank you,
sir. Is there anything else?”

“Dismissed, Will. Now
get back to your ship and get her ready for anything.”

Chapter 14

It was bright and
early when Captain Blythe was summoned back to Admiral Halsey’s
office. Apparently the “anything” Blythe was supposed to
get ready for had come.

Halsey seemed
grim. “Morning, Will. Glad you could make it so quickly.”

“At
your disposal, as always, sir. May I ask what this is about?”

Halsey
reached for a bottle, paused for a moment, then took it anyway. But
he only put a splash of whiskey in each. “Hell of a night off
Guadalcanal, Will. The Washington
and
the
South Dakota
led the
Manchester
and some cans up around Savo Island to intercept the Jap’s nightly
bombardment force. Our ‘wagons tore a big-sized hunk out of one of
their
Kongos,
but the
South
Dakota
got
pretty worked over. We also lost two of the cans, and the other two
still might go down.” He paused. “And we lost your old
friend, the
Manchester.”

Blythe
sat back, stunned. “I barely knew the men, but Captain Stark
seemed like a good officer. Were there survivors?”

Halsey
looked puzzled for a moment, then realized Blythe hadn’t heard.
“Stark’s here, in the hospital. He came down with appendicitis.
Manchester was
under the command of one of my staff, Joe Tormolen last
night.”

Blythe knew how much Halsey cared for his men.
“I’m sorry, sir. I hope he’s all right.”

Halsey
nodded his acknowledgment, then moved on. “But that’s not why
you’re here, Will. I have an assignment for you.”

“The
Arkansas
is at your disposal, sir. What can we do?”

“Last
night we gave the Japs a bloody nose. We took our hits, too, but I
still think we can seize the opportunity to capitalize on events.
I’ve got a harbor full of reinforcements and equipment for the
Marines on Guadalcanal, and it could be just enough to take the
island. I want you and your cans to make sure they get there
safely.”

“You can count on us, sir.”

“I
know, Will. And once they’ve started unloading, I have a special task
for you. The Marines report the Japs have some hardened positions on
the north end of the island, and I think the Arkansas
is
just the lady to bust them wide open. Have you had much experience or
training with shore bombardment?”

“Experience? No.
Not much call for it in the Atlantic. But practice? Plenty. Last time
we cruised by Vieques, we made a whole bunch of toothpicks.”

“Well, you’re
going to get a chance to put that to the test. I’d like you to weigh
anchor at 0400 tomorrow.”

Blythe was surprised at the
early hour. “Why then, sir?”

“Thanks to our
taking Henderson Field, we have air superiority over and around
Guadalcanal. Superiority, but not supremacy — the Japs still get
through far too often. But it’s only during the daylight hours. We
can’t fly at night. So we tend to send in our ships during the day,
when we can give them fighter cover, and the Japs send theirs in at
night, when we can’t hit them.” Just then his phone rang. “One
minute, Will. I told them not to interrupt me unless it was
critical.” He took the call.

“Halsey.
What? Are you sure? Well, damn! Pass on my congratulations to Willis
Lee!” Halsey hung up. “Our recon boys just confirmed we
sank that
Kongo
last night. That’s two of the big bastards we’ve put down in three
days. Yamamoto must be furious.”

Blythe found himself
smiling too. “I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed. I
wouldn’t mind seeing how my old gal could do against a Kongo.”

Halsey
got serious again. “Be careful what you wish for, Will. I think
that would be a pretty even match. I don’t think either ship could
stand up to the other’s guns. And while you’ve got more guns, they’re
faster. No, in cases like this I don’t believe in giving the other
guy a fair fight — last night I sent in two modern fast battleships
against a souped-up old battlecruiser. On paper, it should have been
a slaughter, but the
South
Dakota

still took a hell of a pounding.”

Blythe quickly
assented. “You’re right, sir. No sense borrowing trouble,
especially since we aren’t even the most important part of this trip
— the ships carrying the men and weapons are. We’ll get them there
safely, sir — you can count on us.”

Halsey stood, picked
up the bottle again, and reluctantly put it away. A small shot was
one thing, but this long before noon? Any more would be totally
unacceptable. “I know I can, Will. If there is any man I can
count on to keep the Marines on that island first and foremost in
mind, it’s you. Now go get your ship and crew ready.”

Chapter 15

The
mission was not going well for the
Arkansas.
Traveling halfway around the world without serious dock time had
finally caught up with her. Something had gone terribly wrong in the
radar shack, and she was back to using plain old optics and relying
on her destroyers. A gunner’s mate had tripped going down a ladder,
and broken his leg in three places. There had been a fire alarm
(false, thank heavens) in the forward magazine. And quite possibly
the most critical one, the gedunk machine was down and there was no
ice cream.

Fortunately, the
dangers had all been internal. Lookouts had spotted several aircraft,
but they had all been friendly — the Americans truly did own the
daylight skies around Guadalcanal. His lookouts had recognized
Catalinas, Dauntlesses, and Wildcats making certain the Japs didn’t
sneak through. Likewise, there had been not even a hint of a
submarine sighting, friendly or hostile.

Captain
Blythe forced back a snort. Despite the use he’d put the
Goldfish
to earlier, he still didn’t recognize the idea of a “friendly”
sub.

Regardless,
the escort trip was winding down. They were about 90 minutes out from
the beaches of Guadalcanal, and while his charges unloaded, the
Arkansas would
be doing some unloading of her own — 740-lb. packages, a dozen at a
time. He’d spent a good chunk of the trip up from Noumea going over
charts of Guadalcanal, figuring out where the Japs were and what
strong points would best be served by a few dozen or so broadsides of
the brand-new high-explosive rounds they’d taken on from the
Diamond
Huckster.

This would be the
first time the Arkansas would fire her guns in anger. And Captain
Blythe was more than ready for the challenge — especially against a
foe that wouldn’t shoot back. He shared Halsey’s philosophy — in
war, there was never a call for a “fair fight.”

Just then, as if
summoned by the thought of Halsey, the radio man came to the bridge.
“Sir! Flash traffic from Admiral Halsey!” He handed the
freshly-decoded message to the captain.

FROM: HALSEY, ADM.
W. CINC SOPAC

TO: BLYTHE, CPT,
USS ARKANSAS

PRIORITY: HIGHEST

CANCEL 2ND PART OF
PLAN STOP COURIER ON WAY WITH NEW ORDERS STOP PICK UP AT DESTINATION
STOP MOST CRITICAL XX

“Send our
acknowledgement back immediately.” Blythe handed the note to his
exec. “Your thoughts, Mr. Foster?”

Foster read it
over, three times, frowning more each time. “It’s pretty vaguely
worded, but the meaning’s pretty clear. The bombardment’s off;
instead, we’ll be getting new orders hand-delivered to us. And
they’re important.”

Blythe nodded. “Anything else?”

Foster was used to
these little tests, so he read it a fourth time. “No, sir.
That’s all it says.”

Blythe took back the note and
turned to Mr. Rose. “You want to take a stab at it?”

Suddenly on the
spot, the Lt. Commander was briefly flustered, then took the paper.
He, too, read it carefully, then spoke. “Mr. Foster is correct
— that is all that the message says. But…”

“But what,
Mr. Rose?”

Rose continued, most hesitantly. “This
came through encrypted, but even still it’s very vague and cryptic. I
mean, it’s meaning is clear to us, but to anyone else, they’d have to
have more information to make any use out of it. They’d have to know
what our destination is, and what our orders are, to know what’s
going on.”

“Very good, Mr. Rose. And what does that
tell you?”

Rose was more confident now. “That either
Admiral Halsey believes our codes are compromised, or the orders
we’ll be getting are so sensitive, he wants to take no
chances.”

“Even better, Mr. Rose. But there are two
more possibilities we should consider. First, that both of those
could be true. And finally, the ‘courier’ we’re receiving is a very,
very important person whose presence should be kept very
quiet.”

Rose swallowed. “And would ‘very, very
important person’ be a good description of Admiral Halsey himself?”

“It would
indeed, Mr. Rose. Or General MacArthur. Or any of several other very
high-ranking officers I could think of. Or the courier could be a
nobody, just whoever Admiral Halsey had on hand. But there’s only one
thing we can do at this point, based on the information we have.”

Foster chimed in,
chagrined at missing the points Rose picked up and needing to redeem
himself. “What’s that, sir?”

Blythe carefully folded
up the message and tucked it in his pocket. “This courier’s new
orders are, as Admiral Halsey said, ‘most critical.’ That implies
that we won’t be sticking around to send him back, and he’ll probably
be coming along with us. So prepare the Admiral’s cabin for our guest
— whoever he might be.”

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